With the new year upon us, it’s time for NHL fans to get back to keeping a close eye on which teams are serious and which teams will be looking for new coaches at the end of the year. With most teams approaching the halfway point this article will look at which teams will be in the market for a new coach. 1. Vancouver Canucks; It must be tough being a Vancouver Canucks fan. They haven’t won a playoff round or qualified for one since their game seven loss to the Bruins in 2011. Head coach Travis Green could be a victim of circumstances if the Canucks can’t get past round one of the playoffs. The only problem is the 16-19-5 Canucks haven’t been playing that badly. They sit in seventh place in the Pacific division, and fans are thirsty for a competitive playoff team. The Canucks also have a goaltending issue. The Canucks are getting solid play from both Jacob Markstrom and Tom Nilsson. Markstrom has an impressive 2.79 GAA while Nilsson has been respectable in 14games. The season could be determined in a couple of weeks as the Canucks have a tough five= game stretch against Montreal, Toronto, Minnesota Columbus and the Rangers. The Canucks need to play sixty minutes of hockey and find an identity soon or Travis Green may be out. 2. Arizona Coyotes; Like any team that’s been at the bottom the Coyotes are a team searching for answers. First-year head coach Rick Tocchet brings a defensive style of play to a 9-27-5 team who has had its share of losing seasons. The team has made it known for quite some time, that veteran Anthony DuClair is available. The question is who do they get in return? At this point, the Coyotes will get a high lottery pick. Number one pick Dylan Strome has been a bright spot but is a victim of growing pains. The other bright spot has been goalie Antii Raanta. Ranta has an impressive5-10-2 record. If the Coyotes want to climb back in then Raanta needs to be their star player. Only time will tell. 3. Buffalo Sabres; The Sabres are another team that has been cellar dwellers for quite a while. Head coach Phil Housley is trying to guide the 10-20-9 team to respectability. In order to do this, the Sabres need solid production from Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, and Evander Kane. Eichel got off to a slow start but recently has elevated his game. Goaltender Robin Lehner is 4-7-5 in his last twelve starts. Lehner and the Sabres have been victims of the overtime curse. The Sabres are a 1-0-2 in their last three overtime wins. If Housley is to hold onto his job, then the Eichel line and team need to play a full sixty minutes of hockey, for the rest of the season. Like any team trying to win at a high level,s it ‘s going to take some time. Drafting lottery players is a great place to begin, but successful teams find ways to win. Two ways to win are, one play sixty minutes a game. And two is to play smart. All three coaches mentioned are good coaches but fans are waiting patiently for a winning team.
Most first year draft eligibles don’t even make the WJC team of their respective countries, and if they do, they typically play a minor role. Top 2018 draft prospect Rasmus Dahlin not only made his team, but he’s been one of the top players. Dahlin has 5 points through 4 games, tied for the lead for defensemen with 2016 Tampa Bay 2nd round pick Libor Hajek, who represents the Czech Republic. Before this tournament, Dahlin and #2 prospect Andrei Svechnikov were viewed as near equals, with Dahlin usually narrowly in front. That gap may be wider now.
World Junior Championship bias is very much a thing, and it can be quite prominent in some rankings. I try very hard not to let the fact that certain players made their WJC teams affect my rankings, and that is part of the reason why I don’t publish January draft rankings – I like to give myself extra time following the WJC to watch some other players in a normal setting before I formulate my rankings. A strong WJC can catapult a player up draft boards, even if that rise isn’t deserved. One tournament doesn’t show the future potential of a player. This could happen with Filip Zadina, who has had a great WJC, impressing a lot of people, including me. However, Zadina hasn’t been at that excellent level of play when playing for the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL. Zadina is going to leapfrog Adam Boqvist on some draft rankings because of the WJC, as Boqvist was not at the WJC, and wasn’t able to put up a strong performance of his own to match Zadina’s.
However, the WJC can still be a great scouting tool when used properly. A scout shouldn’t use the World Juniors for getting a feel for a player’s skills or potential, that should be saved for regular season games. Instead, it should be used as an opportunity to compare players, provided that they are all at the tournament of course. So the WJC can be used to compare Dahlin to Svechnikov in the same setting. Of course, this shouldn’t be weighted too high in rankings, because players can have good or bad WJC.
That is exactly what I did at this year’s WJC; I compared Dahlin and Svechnikov, and so far, Dahlin has come out ahead by a wide extent. Dahlin has fantastic, he’s been playing a lot, and that playing time has been well deserved. A player that can chip in offensively from the blue line like Dahlin can be very valuable, and the Swedish coach realises that.
Andrei Svechnikov needs a strong tournament to match Dahlin’s if he wants to remain in contention for 1st overall, but so far he has not had that. Svechnikov has had a solid tournament, but it hasn’t been near Dahlin’s level, and it will be hard for him to stay close to Dahlin at this rate.
Rasmus Dahlin has shown that he can be dominant against the best U20 players in the world, which Svechnikov has not demonstrated. You have to think that that increased the probability of Dahlin going first overall. At this point, Svechnikov’s first overall hopes are becoming more and more unlikely. I just can’t see Svechnikov usurping Dahlin. For the first time this year, the race for first overall is no longer a two horse affair.
In my last article, I listed 20 significant events for hockey that occurred in 2017. There could be some significant events for 2018 that will affect the NHL and international hockey long term. Here are some that will happen for sure or maybe happen.
1. Approve New Seattle NHL Franchise As Soon As Possible
This is a no-brainer, a for-sure event. Unless something absolutely catastrophic happens, the NHL is not going to refund $650 million to Jerry Bruckheimer and David Bonderman. The NHL has been actively wanting Seattle for over half a decade and now with the renovation of the Key Arena and the appearance of Bruckheimer and Bonderman, it has finally come to pass. The faster this token “approval process” is over, the better for the NHL. Nothing is completely certain but for this to happen in 2018, my Predictability Rating is 99.9%.
2. The NHL Realigns Into An NFL Structure
This will depend on how fast the NHL approves the Seattle bid. The way the unwieldy conference structure is right now is interesting but confusing for the fans and everybody else. Realigning into the easy to understand NFL structure of 2 Conferences, each with 4 Divisions of 4 teams with a revised playoff structure makes things easier for everybody to follow. To get to 32 teams for minimum realignment was one of the main reasons the NHL accepted an almost for sure Seattle bid. It also makes it easier to keep expanding the league to the next symmetrical number of 40 teams (5 teams to a division) and even 48 teams (6 teams to a division). As I’ve said in too many articles to count, there are approximately 60 major metropolitan areas in the United States and Canada (and growing all the time) so the NHL, the NBA, MLB, and the NFL are only a fraction of the size they could be. There are only two questions concerning NHL Realignment. First, will they announce it in 2018 which depends on how fast they officially approve Seattle? Second, since the NHL seems intent on becoming a 40 team league, will any other expansion cities be on board before they officially announce it? Predictability Rating: 80%.
3. Houston Is Granted An NHL Franchise
This too is probably a “done deal” and again it depends on how fast the NHL approves Seattle. They will probably want to officially approve Seattle first before moving on to new expansion issues. The NHL is not in any hurry to get Houston in the league though it is an almost for-sure action, but they might be a bit anxious to get their hands on more expansion money which will be at least as much as Seattle if not higher. Predictability Rating: 60%.
4. An Active Hartford Expansion Bidder Will Appear
Hartford has approved a $250 million expansion/renovation of its XL Arena to 19,000 seats. In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman made a tour of the three cities that lost their franchises in the 1990s, Quebec, Hartford, and Winnipeg and offered them three terms for readmission to the NHL (Great fan base [no problem for all three cities]; A proper NHL arena; Acceptable ownership). Winnipeg was used to solve the Atlanta crisis and Quebec has been actively knocking at the door (see its situation listed below). Most likely the NHL will accept Hartford’s arena renovation plans just like they will approve Seattle’s renovation. So that just leaves the ownership problem to be resolved. Hartford made an active attempt to woo the New York Islanders by relocation which has now officially failed because the Islanders will get a new Long Island arena built. So the problem has become finding a rich investor, anxious to get into the NHL. Hartford with a proper arena is a sure money maker like Seattle so somebody is bound to appear though not necessarily this year. Predictability Rating: 40%.
5. Another Western City Will Be Granted An NHL Franchise
There are lots of cities out west that the NHL would like see enter the league besides Houston. Milwaukee and San Francisco are already building new arenas though they might be too NBA basketball friendly for the NHL’s liking. Spokane and Saskatoon are long term possibilities. Right now the best possibilities are in Portland, San Diego, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City. Why would the NHL which will accept Seattle for sure and likely approve a serious Houston bid want yet another western city which will tilt league conference imbalance even further? So that the following can happen… Predictability Rating: 30%
6. Resolution Of The Quebec and Arizona Problems
There is very little chance of the citizens of Phoenix approving a new downtown arena for the Coyotes. Even the NBA Phoenix Suns has declined to go into partnership for a new arena and instead further insulted the Coyotes by renovating its own arena to make it more basketball friendly. At the same time the NHL wants Quebec back in the league, loves the fan base now grown to over 800,000, and the new Videotron arena which they have rewarded with a World Cup exhibition game and Montreal Canadiens preseason games, but cannot accept the current bidder, Pierre Karl Peladeau, an active, pro-separatist potential politician who made public, inappropriate, racist comments about the Canadiens owner, Geoff Molson and is considered too untrustworthy to ever be granted an expansion franchise. The NHL does not want to reject Quebec outright so their current status is officially listed as “deferred”. So moving the unpopular Coyotes to Quebec and adding two more western expansion cities is the obvious solution. This could happen… or it could not. There are other ways of getting more expansion money such as accepting Houston and Hartford now and postponing the Quebec/Phoenix problem still further. But adding Houston and another western city now and at the same time shifting the Coyotes to Quebec to get Peladeau out of the picture makes the most sense. It kills two birds with one stone. It adds two more western expansion fees plus any relocation fee the NHL might want to charge the Coyotes. Predictability Rating: 30%
7. Pyeongchang Olympics NHL Player Participation Crisis
It is all quiet now but in recent years, several players (most notably Alexander Ovechkin) have said that they want to play for their countries in the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea. The self-indulgent snobs of the United States and Canada using shallow excuses pulled the NHL out of the Olympics but said they might return in the future. This is clearly an insulting act against South Korea. One of the reasons that the NHL cites for its decision is that Pyeongchang is in a time zone that won’t attract North American television viewers. But the next Winter Olympics will be in China which is in the same time zone or worse, but the Chinese market is over 1 billion people which the NHL wants to exploit… not like “lowly” South Korea which “only” has a market of 50 million. The insulting, laughable hypocrisy of pulling out of South Korea only to go back into China shows the usual ignorance and disrespect of American businessmen and politicians. But a lot of people including many current NHL players, some of which are Americans themselves, consider the Olympics to be a “higher” event, worthy of more respect and reverence than the NHL is showing. As January moves along, the issue of NHL player participation is going to come to the fore. This has never occurred before so nobody knows what the outcome will be. There will probably be some kind of crisis, but nobody knows how big. Predictability Rating: 75%.
8. South Korea NHL Hockey Embarrassment
The NHL has officially pulled out of the Pyeongchang Olympics but the South Koreans may yet get the last laugh. They have improved their national team hockey program from almost nothing and are now so good, they won their World Hockey Championship Division level last year and got promoted to the top level this year when they will make their debut against “big 7″ competition for the first time. What a thing to happen for poor Bettman, just when he pulled the NHL out of Pyeongchang. Probably what everybody predicts is that the South Koreans, faced with tougher competition will lose every game and then be demoted back to the lower division with a pat on the back for improving so much. But if they do anything significant (even horrors! winning a medal!) and manage to stick around at the top level from now on, what’s Bettman and the NHL going to do? Will he be forced to invite them to be participants in the next World Cup of 2020? What a great way to promote the growth of international hockey which Bettman has stated he wants to do. Pulling the NHL out of Pyeongchang snubs a potential new, major NHL market of 50 million people. Everybody cheer for the South Koreans. Predictability Rating: Impossible to predict because nobody knows how good the upstart South Korean team will play against top competition for the first time. The prediction rating should be low… but almost everybody said that Canada would sweep the unknown USSR back in 1972 and look what happened. Anybody who wants to see international hockey grow should be cheering for South Korea in May.
I’ve just made predictions about the major long term issues that could affect hockey. There are others that could be addressed. The improvement of the quality of play in international hockey is probably the most important issue to be resolved if hockey is to expand world wide, but the likelihood of seeing anything positive done by the NHL and the international powers that be is probably 0% in 2018. Getting Hamilton or another southern Ontario team into the NHL should be a priority but nothing will be done. I have also refrained from commenting on the arena issues in Calgary, San Diego, and Ottawa.
And I have not bothered to predict on short term issues like who will win the World Junior Championships, possible major NHL trades, who will make the Stanley Cup playoffs and who will win the Stanley Cup. For now I’ll leave that to others or for later. The resolution of the eight issues I have listed will make 2018 a significant year for hockey.
There were a lot of long term and potential long term significant developments for hockey that occurred in 2017. This is probably my last article for the year so it is a good way of finishing it off by summarizing it. In no particular order, here are what I think were the most important developments in hockey of 2017.
1. The NHL Balances Its Conferences And Can Realign
By admitting Seattle, the NHL has reached 32 teams, just like the NFL and can now realign into an NFL structure of 2 conferences, with 4 divisions of 4 teams. Once Seattle is formally approved by the NHL, expect some kind of realignment by the NHL to follow. The only remaining question is whether any more expansion cities will be admitted to league before it realigns. All indications are that NHL is not prepared to halt at 32 teams but is aiming for the next symmetrical number of 40.
2. Jerry Bruckheimer And David Bonderman Save Gary Bettman’s NHL Expansion Bacon
The last NHL expansion involving Las Vegas was a failure. Probably what the NHL was aiming for was Quebec City and three western teams. Instead they only could get Las Vegas and the main reason was probably that the investment world would not accept a $500 million expansion fee. There was a distinct possibility that the NHL would have to postpone further expansion and realignment indefinitely unless they refunded some money back to Las Vegas owner Bill Foley and set a lower, more realistic expansion fee. But Bruckheimer and Bonderman broke through the investment standoff and even sweetened things by paying $650 million for a Seattle franchise. Now the NHL can expand to 40 teams and pick up a lot of cash along the way.
3. Seattle Gets An NHL Team
It’s a mere formality now. There will be the formal investigation, legal problems sorted out, a similar Bill Foley season ticket drive, but the NHL is not going to refund $650 million even if not a single person in Seattle buys a potential season ticket. Seattle is in the NHL, exactly 100 years after they won the Stanley Cup. The only two questions are why it took them so long and will their name be the Metropolitans again.
4. The Saving Of The New York Islanders
Hard on the heels of Seattle getting a team, the NHL got just as good news when the New York Islanders finally solved their arena problems after nearly 30 years. A new 18,000 seat arena will be built at Belmont and the Islanders can now build a competitive team at last, starting with the resigning of John Tavares.
5. Crosby/Malkin/Pittsburgh Legend Continues To Grow
Sidney Crosby continues to behave like his illustrious forebears on Canada’s Golden Hockey Chain, which is the link, starting with Maurice Richard in the 1940s of the best Canadian hockey player of his generation being head and shoulders above everybody else. It has been a continuous, overlapping chain since Richard and includes Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur, Wayne Gretzky, and Mario Lemieux. All have won at least one Stanley Cup. Crosby now has three and added another Conn Smythe Trophy as well. Crosby has been part of a pioneering experiment by Pittsburgh which no other NHL team in history has tried. That has been to take Canada’s best player and pair him with a top, maybe the best European player, to win Stanley Cups. The twosome of Crosby-Malkin, Lemieux-Jagr has now won five Stanley Cups. The Penguin legend has also grown. The first 25 years were not noteworthy and at times the franchise itself seemed in peril. But during the last 25 years, the Penguins have now tied the Pittsburgh Pirates for championships and are poised to challenge the Pittsburgh Steelers for best Pittsburgh major league team ever.
6. Emergence Of Connor McDavid As Crosby’s Successor
Connor McDavid has emerged as the successor of Sidney Crosby as Canada’s best player. McDavid won the scoring championship last year ahead of Crosby, a portent of future greatness. He has big skates to fill. Not only does he have to succeed Crosby on Canada’s Golden Hockey Chain, he has to succeed Wayne Gretzky in Edmonton. Gretzky, now part of the Oilers organization again is acting as his mentor. The big question is can Edmonton build a championship team around McDavid.
7. NHL Plays Regular Season Games In Europe Again
Things could not have gone better for the NHL when Ottawa and Colorado played two sold out games in Stockholm. Unlike the NFL, the NHL sent two decent teams for the fans. Bettman wants to develop international hockey and play more games in Europe, a target for potential NHL expansion in the future. The Senator-Avalanche games were a welcome return.
8. Emergence of South Korean Hockey
The other positive, significant development in international hockey was the emergence of South Korea from nowhere. The South Koreans have been promoted at both the junior and regular levels of international hockey. Awarded the Winter Olympics of 2018, the South Koreans have attempted to develop their international hockey program, and their men’s team is now at least as good as the usual “B Level” teams who have been around since before 1972. The South Koreans will make their debut against the traditional “Big 7″ countries in next year’s World Championships. Nobody knows how good this team is. Will they be demoted, or will they do something significant and finally turn the “Big 7″ into a “Big 8″?
9. Hartford Getting Back Into The NHL
Everybody knows about Quebec, Las Vegas, Seattle, and Winnipeg trying to get back into the NHL but Hartford finally emerged from inertia to have a chance at returning to the NHL in the near future. First they announced they would spend $250 million to renovate the XL Center into an arena that will seat more than 19,000. The mayor of Hartford and the governor of Connecticut then sent a letter to the New York Islanders inviting them to become the Hartford Whalers if they could not build a new arena. That has now come to nothing. But Hartford got good news when the NHL admitted Seattle because it meant that a renovated Seattle arena was acceptable instead of building a new one. There should be no reason for the NHL to reject a renovated XL Center. If Hartford can find a suitable owner to front an expansion bid, they should be back in the NHL soon.
10. NHL Not Acting Like The NFL
Perhaps just as important as what the NHL did is what they did not do. The NHL seems committed to expanding to 40 teams or more, a process that hurts nobody. And they respect and reward the contributions of their international players by trying to develop the game abroad and returning games between contending teams to Europe. In contrast, to get teams back in Los Angeles, their potential second largest market, which had snubbed them for 20 years, the NFL cruelly stripped St. Louis and San Diego of their teams despite a loyal following, instead of expanding their league. They followed that up by stripping Oakland of the Raiders and packing them off to Las Vegas. The NFL also shows its contempt for foreigners by sending games between bottom of the barrel teams that have no chance of selling out in the United States off to London. This obvious show of disdain has brought protests from British fans of the NFL. The NHL, the NBA, and MLB will do well to avoid the NFL’s path.
11. Success Of The Las Vegas Golden Knights
The NHL offered generous terms for the Knights to get started, but you also need good ownership and management to take advantage of it. Las Vegas has actually created a team with a good coach that might make the playoffs in its very first year. Winning has made the team a hit. It shows that good ownership and management can make a doubtful market a success.
12. NHL Centennial Celebrations
The NHL celebrated its 100th anniversary successfully. They got many veteran players involved, held a successful road show, added a new franchise, had fan competitions about best all time NHL moments and best uniforms, and held a cumulative outdoor game in Ottawa between the Senators and Canadiens. The only quibble I have is that they did not award returned franchises to Quebec and Hamilton to coincide with Canada’s 150th birthday (See below).
1. Continued Quebec City Frustration
In 2010, Commissioner Bettman toured Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford, the three cities that lost their NHL franchises in the 1990s and offered them terms for readmission. These terms, which also apply to every future NHL expansion team are excellent fan base (which all three cities have); a proper NHL arena; and a suitable NHL owner (No mention of any expansion fee). Winnipeg is already back and Quebec and Hartford are making attempts to return too. The Quebec market stretches from half way to Montreal eastward and includes all four Maritime provinces, several million people, and the released Canadian Census says that metropolitan Quebec itself is now over 800,000. The NHL also loves the new Videotron arena which it rewarded with a World Cup exhibition game and Montreal preseason games.
So the problem is at the ownership factor because the NHL does not find Pierre Karl Peladeau, an active Quebec political separatist, who made public, racist comments about one of the Board members, Geoff Molson, owner of the Montreal Canadiens, remarks that probably offended not only Molson but other members of the Board and Commissioner Bettman, and who is considered generally untrustworthy, acceptable. The NHL cannot afford to have a public racist on its Board of Directors. Recent new and potential owners Chipman and Thomson (Winnipeg), Foley (Las Vegas), Fertitta (Houston), Molson himself (Montreal), and now Bruckheimer and Bonderman (Seattle), have all been seen in Bettman’s company but never Peladeau. The NHL, including Commissioner Bettman and Geoff Molson want a Quebec City team, but not with Peladeau involved. So far the NHL has not been able to find a suitable alternative bid from another bidder so Quebec, one of the two best markets in Canada without an NHL team, remains in suspension, “deferred” until a suitable owner appears.
2. Arizona Coyotes Soap Opera
If the NHL managed to resolve the New York Islanders arena problem, they are miles away in Phoenix which refuses to spend public money to build a new arena for a “professional” franchise that has only iced one competitive team in its entire history. Both suburban Glendale public officials and Bettman and the Arizona ownership have publicly said they are finished with each other. Bettman stood before the Arizona Legislature to plead for public funding for a new arena but instead of being able to show competent management and ownership, he was presented with a team so bad that it was out of playoff contention after only ten games in the current season. Try and get the money now. The success of the Las Vegas Golden Knights in another desert city shows how bad the Coyotes have been. Even the NBA Phoenix Suns ownership publicly insulted the Coyotes by renovating their arena to make it more basketball friendly instead of going into partnership with them to build a new arena. Quebec, Houston, Hartford, Portland and elsewhere, here we come.
3. Calgary Flames Blackmail
The citizens and officials of Calgary are rightly concerned about spending public tax dollars on vague projects like “Calgary Next” where the final price tag is not known for sure. Actually the current Calgary Saddledome arena is one of the better ones in the NHL with over 19,000 seats. It is only 34 years old, not even close to the renovated 41 year old XL Center in Hartford or to the 55 year old Key Arena in Seattle. Just what is wrong with the Saddledome, the Flames ownership won’t say. Since the NHL is willing to accept renovated arenas, a cheaper Saddledome renovation could probably be negotiated. But instead of talking, the Flames ownership which wants a free new arena it doesn’t have to pay for, took its cue from the NFL and made threats about relocating. Since when are professional sports franchises owners “owed” new arenas and stadiums from the public? According to the Flames ownership logic, the 86 year old Empire State Building should have been torn down and replaced decades ago.
4. The NHL Pulling Out Of the Pyeongchang Olympics
South Korea also figures in one of the two worst things about international hockey in 2017. Pyeongchang is not glamorous enough for the snobs in the United States and Canada so Gary Bettman pulled the NHL out of the 2018 Olympics but said that they might return for the next one in Beijing, China which is in exactly the same time zone as Pyeongchang. But the South Koreans may get the last laugh if they do anything significant at next year’s World Championships where they will compete against top competition for the first time. If South Korea turns out to be the long-sought eighth member of the “Big 7″, that will be a huge embarrassment for Bettman and the NHL which will have snubbed a potential new NHL market of 50 million people. It will also mean that the NHL will have snubbed the only country that has managed to raise its game from the “B Level” to the “A Level”. What a wonderful way to grow international hockey.
5. Still No Plan For Raising The Quality Of International Hockey
The other major international hockey problem has been around since before 1972 when NHL professionals first played against international competition, the USSR national team. Back then there were boasts that hockey would soon be the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer. But the “Big 7″ of hockey in 1972 are still the “Big 7″ of hockey in 2017. In 45 years, there has been no expansion of hockey’s base, a resounding failure. There are approximately 50 countries that play hockey including over a dozen countries (now joined by South Korea) at the “B Level” of play. Bettman unofficially recognized this problem at the revived World Cup when he created Team Europe and Team North America. He did not want any boring mismatches between “Big 7″ teams and “B Level” countries. Even Slovakia was not allowed to ice a team. His World Cup of hockey will never gain the stature of the World Cup of soccer until hockey’s base is broadened. Thousands of potential talented hockey careers, maybe as good as Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr have been lost. Bettman has proposed several good plans for growing international hockey but nothing about resolving the competition problem. But until this problem is finally faced up to and dealt with honestly, the man with the best intentions will see his international plans limited and the growth of international hockey stunted.
6. Racism and Elitism Continue To Thwart NHL Growth In Canada
It was the 150th birthday of Canada and nothing would have been better for the NHL to join in the celebrations and also of its own centennial than to restore two Canadian franchises, Quebec City, and Hamilton. For Quebec City, since the NHL cannot find acceptable, local, French Canadian owners, the obvious solution is to get outside investors like Anglophone Quebecers, investors from “English Canada”, and investors from the United States. This is a common practice, since both Winnipeg and Ottawa are owned by Torontonians. Here Quebec City history comes back to haunt them. Remembering the discriminatory language legislation which caused thousands of Anglophone Quebecers to flee Quebec and the continuing efforts by racist political parties like the Parti Quebecois to take Quebec out of Canada, no outside investor wants to take a chance on reviving the Quebec Nordiques. They are too afraid that the racists though a Parti Quebecois government will pass legislation making it impossible for outsiders to operate a professional sports team in the province of Quebec. This hampers not only the chance of Quebec getting the Nordiques back, but chances to get a CFL team, the Winter Olympics, a World’s Fair, and tourist dollars via international conventions. Indeed it is possible to argue that if outside investors were not frightened by political and economic consequences, Quebec City which was a great NHL franchise, one of the better ones in the league, a sure money-maker with a proper arena, would not have lost the Nordiques in 1995 and would have built the Videotron long ago without any taxpayer money being used.
The other ugly Canadian trait is elitism which has been around since the days of New France where everybody knew his place in society, the British version held by the Canadian Loyalists, both of which cumulated in the Rebellions of 1837. Elitism has not gone away since then. For me personally, in almost every job I would have in Canada, there would be somebody picking on somebody else because they were deemed not good enough for them. The ugliest incident in recent years was the suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons and other “undesirables” because of the non-stop torments of those who considered her not “one of them”.
For the NHL, elitism means Canadian franchise NHL owners not willing to share the national market with other Canadians. Specifically right now it means owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres not setting reasonable compensation terms so that Hamilton or another southern Ontario market can join the NHL. It will hold true for Quebec City, a second Montreal team, a third southern Ontario team, and Saskatoon. All through NHL history, Canadians and Canadian franchise owners have frustrated or postponed new Canadian teams from joining the league. Villains include Stafford Smythe, Harold Ballard, Jack Kent Cooke, Molson Breweries, and lately Pierre Karl Peladeau. Canadians make up a myth that American Gary Bettman and the American NHL owners are “anti-Canadian” which is not true at all. Actually the only valid criticism of Bettman, John Ziegler, and Clarence Campbell is that they have refused to rein in the Canadian franchise owners for the good of the game in Canada.
7. NHL Still Being Hurt By A Corrupt Health Care Industry
From my own personal experience, I know that coronary heart disease (heart attacks, blood clots and strokes, etc.) and gall stones, both officially labeled “incurable diseases” by official international medical authorities are curable. I would probably be dead nine years ago until I took a remedy for heart disease that had been classified as “alternative medicine” by the official health care industry. I have also been told by reliable sources that hay fever and other allergies can be cured by Shiatsu Massage. On this blog in many articles I described how the corrupt health care industry indirectly, significantly decided the Stanley Cup winner of 2016. Too many people are making too much money from suffering and death to allow new “cures” to be recognized. Since the NHL ties itself to “official medicine”, it is reluctant to try new successful things that are not recognized. Each November, the NHL proclaims is “Cancer Awareness Month” but who knows if any other effective cancer treatments have been blocked by the health care industry? Still worse, nobody questions what is going on. Alternative medicine is growing. Sooner or later the truth will come out.
8. The NHL’s Poor Treatment Of Older Players
Old but productive players like Jaromir Jagr, Shane Doan, and Jerome Iginla have been poorly treated since the end of last season. Doan was forced to retire, Iginla is out of hockey, and Jagr is reduced to third line status in Calgary. All were productive, particularly Jagr last year. The only reason for the poor treatment was that these players are older now. It is true they are not what they were, but that does not mean that they cannot have major roles on an NHL team any more. With modern conditioning and medical improvements, the playing days, particularly of top players have been extended. Where 35 was probably the average age to retire, years ago, today it is reasonable to expect 40+ as a retirement age which will only grow longer as more medical and conditioning techniques improve. These three players are merely the start of a coming trend. The NHL continues to ignore it.
The 2018 World Junior Hockey Championships in Buffalo, New York are simply more of the same. There are 10 national teams participating and they accurately tell the state of international hockey not only at the junior level but at the top level that fans will see at the World Championships, the World Cup, and at the Olympics.
It is all based on quality of play. First there are the usual “big 7″ countries, Canada, USA, Russia, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Sweden, and Finland. Then there are the 2 “1A” countries, Switzerland and Denmark. Since before 1972, the date of the Canada-USSR match when NHL professionals first started play in international competitions, only these two countries have made any progress in quality of play. Right now their level of play is probably somewhere midway between the “big 7″ teams and the huge glut of “B Level” teams they have emerged from. Despite their improvement, after four decades, there is still only a “big 7″, not a “big 9″
The tournament is rounded out by Belarus, sole representative of the large number of “B-Level” country teams who have been stuck at that level of play since before 1972. The remainder of this group includes, Austria, Germany, France, Norway, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Italy, Latvia, and Kazakhstan. Belarus has the usual expectations; lose every game or maybe pull an upset or two and then be regulated to the lower level. Back in 1972, after the Canada-USSR match, there were boasts that hockey would soon be the number 2 sport in the world behind soccer. After 45 years, there has been no expansion of the game.
There are two writers on this blog, Sam Happi and Alson Lee who specialize in writing about developments in junior hockey, about who will be the top choices in next year’s NHL draft. So the World Junior Hockey Championship will have special importance for them. This year in Buffalo, they will get to write articles on this blog for the Buffalo fans about whom the horrible Sabres – who right now have the second best chance of getting the number 1 draft pick – who will likely be their top draft pick next year.
The NHL and the powers that be in international hockey make it easy for Alson and Sam Happi to write articles. Since there is no organized plan to improve the quality of play internationally, they can divide their time accordingly. My guess is that they spend 93% of their time writing about the development of the traditional “big 7″ juniors, 5% on players from Denmark and Switzerland, and 2% on anyone else they find interesting.
It’s not that the NHL doesn’t know there is a problem. Gary Bettman gave himself away at the revived World Cup when he created the hybrid teams, Team Europe and Team North America. He did not want any boring mismatches between the “big 7″ and “B Level” teams. Even Slovakia was not allowed to ice a team.
Team Europe, the eventual runner up in the tournament deserves special notice. It was mostly made up of – you guessed it – players from Slovakia, Switzerland, Denmark, and Germany. The latter 3 countries are the obvious ones to develop first if hockey is to grow from a “big 7″ base to a “big 10″ or better. By rights the World Junior Championships and other top tournaments ought to be played by 12 teams, or better yet 16. There will be 16 teams at next year’s World Championship. International women’s hockey is so horrible that only Canada and the United States ice competent teams and there have been threats to expel the sport from the Olympics because of lack of competition.
Bettman has made a lot of statements about how he wants international hockey to grow, most recently when he went to Stockholm, Sweden, to oversee the return of NHL competition to Europe when Ottawa played Colorado. But as usual, he said nothing about improving the quality of play at the lower levels. Over the years since 1972 there have been brief NHL clinics in “B Level” countries and out of work NHL coaches have tried their hands at coaching and improving things abroad at that level. It has obviously not been enough. If Bettman and the other powers that be in international hockey really want the sport to grow, to have a World Cup of hockey that approaches the stature of the World Cup of soccer, the quality of play problem has to finally be faced up to honestly and dealt with. Until then, it will be the usual stagnation.
For me, the most interesting aspect about next year’s World Junior tournament is two notches down. As everyone knows, Bettman pulled the NHL out of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea. But the South Koreans had done their hockey homework well after being awarded the Olympics and during the intervening years set out to improve the quality of play of their national team. And lo and behold, at next year’s World Championships, the South Koreans have come out of nowhere and will play in a top tournament against “big 7″ teams for the very first time.
Probably all that is expected is that the newcomer South Koreans will lose every game and then be regulated. Nobody really knows how good this upstart is because they have never played against top competition before. But their promotion means they are at least as good as the established “B Level” teams. If they do anything significant and manage to stick around at the highest level for the immediate future, what a potential embarrassment for Bettman and the NHL who claim they want to improve international hockey and then snub maybe the only country who may finally turn the “big 7″ into a “big 8″ by pulling out of their Olympics. What a wonderful way to welcome a potential new NHL market of 50 million people.
At the junior level this year, the South Koreans have been promoted from Division 3 to Division 2, so they have been improving at that level too. That’s still 2 notches away from the top level of junior play, but for me at least, they are the team to keep my eye on. Will they win their tournament and get promoted to Division 1? If the South Koreans show something at next year’s World Championships and also keep climbing at the junior level, maybe in a couple of years, Alson and Sam Happi will have to expand their coverage and work a bit harder to cover all the developments at the junior level.
Just when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was reveling in a huge Christmas present, a brand new NHL expansion team in Seattle, meaning that at long last the league has balanced conferences and can now realign, that the investment world finally accepts a $500 million expansion fee and even upped it to $650 million, he got another present, just as good, the end of the New York Islanders arena crisis. New York State has accepted an Islander bid to build a proper NHL arena of 18,000 seats at Belmont park. Construction will begin almost immediately.
The Islanders have long merited a brand new arena. Their original home, the Nassau Coliseum has shrunk in size compared to other NHL arenas over the decades. Once at the median level of 16,000 seats back in the 1970s, today the Nassau Coliseum is now the second smallest in the NHL, ahead of only Winnipeg. The Islanders moved out into the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, a facility even worse, built primarily for basketball with a smaller seating capacity, bad ice, and a significant number of obstructed seats. They had to get out. Their arena crisis of several decades is finally over.
The Islander arena issue was a severe deterrent to building a winning team on the ice. Hampered by inadequate revenues, even a good ownership/management team could not build a championship contender around star players like John Tavares. He can now sign a long term contract knowing things will get better. At long last a sure foundation has been reached. Whether the Islanders play at the Barclays Center or at the Nassau Coliseum while the new arena is built is irrelevant. Hopefully also, the image of the team that of being the poor cousins of the New York Rangers for the past few decades will change.
The arena announcement also ends the hopes of either Hartford or Quebec City of getting the team. Nordiques fans had purchased a block of tickets on one occasion as a way of demonstrating that they wanted Quebec City back in the NHL, and the Hartford mayor and Connecticut governor had sent a letter to the Islanders owners in hopes of moving the team to a renovated XL Center in the future. The NHL with memories of the Islanders glorious history of being the only American franchise to win four consecutive Stanley Cups obviously wanted the Islanders to remain the Islanders. Losing the team would have been a huge blow to their status in the United States.
The resolution of the Islanders arena problem leaves only Phoenix as a major arena crisis left. There is a good chance that the Arizona Coyotes will finally relocate. Quebec and Hartford will do better to look for a relocated team there. Ottawa is a semi-crisis due to current arena location, and Calgary is not a crisis at all, just one invented by a pouty Flames ownership which plays in one of the oldest, but still one of the best arenas in the NHL which seats over 19,000. It’s nice to be a professional sports franchise owner these days when you can expect expensive arenas/stadiums to be built for nothing at public expense.
These are great days for the NHL with the resolution of arena problems, new franchises being added at increased expansion fees, and more cities knocking at the door to get in the league. The New York Islanders were a potential major problem on Gary Bettman’s list. He can now cross them off forever.
As noted in my first article about Seattle joining the NHL, there are important consequences for several cities. In a previous article, I described what the consequences could be for Hartford. In this article I will try to project what the consequences could be for Quebec City and Phoenix.
First a brief recap for those people who have not read any of my numerous articles about Quebec, Phoenix, and NHL expansion on this blog. In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman visited the three cities who lost their franchises in the 1990s, Quebec, Hartford, and Winnipeg and offered them terms for readmission, the first sign that the NHL wanted to expand again. At the time, the NHL consisted of 30 teams, so readmitting all three cities meant that the NHL would grow to 33 teams, one more than the symmetrical number of 32 that the NFL has.
This implied two important developments: If the NHL could reach 32 teams like the NFL, it would probably realign into the type of structure the NFL has. And by adding a 33rd team, it also meant that the NHL would not limit itself to the 32 symmetrical number like the NFL but continue on, probably to the next symmetrical number of 40, meaning 2 conferences with 4 divisions, each with 5 teams. Unfortunately an ownership crisis occurred in Atlanta and Winnipeg was used to resolve it.
When he toured the three cities, Bettman listed three factors that every new expansion/relocation city must have before the NHL would award a team (no mention of any expansion/relocation fee). These were a good fan base (which all three cities possessed), a proper NHL arena, and s suitable owner. There was no problem accepting Winnipeg which had all three factors covered. Quebec and Hartford are in various stages of satisfying the NHL’s terms.
The NHL is also committed to balanced conferences. They switched Detroit and Columbus to the east and Winnipeg to the west and have now added Las Vegas and Seattle to even things up. That still hasn’t stopped the NHL’s appetite for expansion since they probably want to grow to 40 teams and can get expansion fees of $500 million and then $650 million along the way. There are several other cities known to want a team: Quebec City, Hartford, Houston, and Hamilton/second southern Ontario. Probably there are more.
Unfortunately the NHL is currently stuck with two expansion/relocation problems; Quebec City and Phoenix. In Phoenix, the problem is the arena factor. The citizens of Glendale told the NHL that it was preferable to have an empty arena in the future than have the Arizona Coyotes continue to play there. Bettman and the Arizona ownership publicly agreed. Bettman still wanted an Arizona team located in a new downtown arena to be built in Phoenix. He stood before the Arizona Legislature to plead for public money to build a new arena, whereupon the anti-Coyote opponents, many of whom came from Glendale counter-argued that why should more good public money be spent on a franchise that has only once iced a competitive team in its history.
Bettman tried to argue that it would all change with a new arena, but just when he needed to see a competitive team the most, the Arizona ownership and management have presented him with one of the worst teams in Phoenix history, one that was out of playoff contention after only the first ten games of the current season. Barring a miracle, there is no way the Coyotes are going to get any public money for a new arena. Even the NBA Phoenix Suns ownership publicly insulted the Coyotes by renovating their current arena to make it more basketball friendly instead of accepting a proposal to build a new arena in partnership with them.
In Quebec City, the problem is the ownership factor. The NHL loves the entire market of several million people, which stretches from half way to Montreal eastward to include all eastern Quebec province and all four Maritime provinces. The city of Quebec itself has now a metropolitan population of over 800,000. The league also loves the new Quebec Videotron arena which they rewarded with a World Cup exhibition game and pre-season Montreal Canadiens games. But the NHL will never accept Pierre Karl Peladeau as owner because he supports the Quebec separatist political party and made insulting racist comments about the current Montreal Canadiens owner and who has many enemies on the NHL Board. The NHL cannot afford to have a public racist as an owner.
The NHL has never announced a rival bid from a suitable owner from the Quebec area so the obvious solution is to keep the current Arizona Coyote ownership and team, move it out of a city where there will be no arena to play in when the current lease expires, and relocate it in Quebec so that Peladeau is out of the picture. That will mean another conference imbalance, so the NHL needs to work behind the scenes to get two more western expansion cities.
Bettman could not be more overjoyed that the new owner of the NBA Houston Rockets, Tilman Fertitta supports an NHL team in Houston, probably the American city after Seattle that the NHL wants to get a franchise in the most. Even though nothing has been announced, a future Houston team is almost a certain “done deal” like Seattle.
The problem is finding a second western city. There are plenty of candidates. Portland, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, even Saskatoon and San Diego are possibilities. All except Saskatoon (and it is one of Canada’s fastest growing smaller cities so that a franchise at the end of two decades is a realistic possibility) have potential markets to support an NHL team. Milwaukee and San Francisco are building arenas but they may be too basketball friendly and result in another mess like the New York Islanders are currently experiencing with the Barclay’s Center. Kansas City has an excellent arena but nobody seems to trust the fan base which once had a team briefly in the 1970s.
Upstart Oklahoma City which snatched away the NBA Seattle Supersonics after making a failed bid to get an NHL team in the 1990s could be a good choice. Portland, already lined up for a new expansion MLB team and has deep roots in Canadian junior hockey like Seattle is probably the best choice to join Houston. And there is talk in San Diego, now without their NFL Chargers that they will consider building a new arena with the NHL in mind. If they do, they will be a serious contender.
So the admission of Seattle is good news for Quebec City if this speculated plan comes off. Bettman wants to put a team in Quebec City, probably the best current Canadian market without an NHL franchise. He openly consorted with the Quebec City mayor and provincial premier and urged them to complete the new arena even though he probably told them privately that Peladeau was an unacceptable owner. To not honor his promise is an embarrassment for him. Even Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson has hinted that he wants a Quebec City team, just not Peladeau at the Board table. At the same time, Bettman wants to get out of the mess in Phoenix as best as possible. If the NHL can find two more western expansion cities, expect them to be used to kill two birds with one stone, the problems of Phoenix and Quebec.